How to start a vegetable garden

How to start a vegetable garden

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Deciding what to plant — and when to plant it — starts with identifying your hardiness zone. The USDA maintains a map that divides the country into growing zones based on temperatures and average dates of first and last frost. Knowing your zone can prevent you from planting too early, a common mistake that often results in plants being shocked by a late frost. Even seasoned gardeners should take a second look at the map: For the first time since 2012, the USDA made updates for this growing season that moved nearly half the country to a new zone.

Beyond just paying attention to the forecast, Out Trout says there are some basic ways to know when the weather is warm enough to plant. “If you’re sitting on the ground in your garden and you feel cold, it’s too cold for your plants,” she says. “Or you can stick your finger into the soil about an inch deep. If you can leave it there for a minute comfortably, it’s warm enough to plant.”

Seed packets are often printed with detailed information about when to plant, and whether the seeds should be sown directly into the garden or started indoors. “For a first-time gardener, I would say that if the seed package says to start indoors, put them back in,” Awot-Traut says. “It’s a step up because you need starting equipment, and among beginners I see a lot of failures, so I don’t recommend it.”

Having a successful first season can be a big confidence builder, so experts suggest sticking to easy-to-grow varieties at first. “I recommend summer squash or zucchini, string beans, cucumbers, lettuce, and cherry tomatoes,” says Ott Trout. “It’s really hard to fail with cherry tomatoes.”

Some plants are a little trickier, Kemper says. Broccoli and onions, for example, are not plants he suggests for beginners. On the other hand, “hot peppers are a wonderful plant,” he says. “They can withstand a hurricane or a swarm of locusts and still come out on top.”

Whether it’s your first growing season or your fiftieth, everyone should grow garlic, Kemper says. “I don’t think there’s anything easier,” he says. “You pull out a clove, stick it in the ground in the fall, cover it, and wait for next summer’s harvest. You don’t have to do anything else: just set it and forget it.

A vegetable garden also doesn’t have to be limited to vegetables. Adding some flowers and herbs can attract beneficial insects and deter pests. “You can grow something like marigolds, which is great for attracting pollinators,” Ott Trout says. “It also helps keep some insects away without having to worry about spraying.”

She adds that the most important advice when it comes to choosing plants is simple: “Don’t plant anything you don’t want. Radishes are easy to grow, but if you don’t like radishes, don’t grow them!

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